A Playwright's Life for Me! Young Children's Language & Learning through Drama

Dr. Shelby Wolf
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In A Room with a View, Virginia Woolf wrote: “Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.” This idea is literally played out in the research Dr. Wolf conducted with the children of Bexhill Primary School in Sunderland. Typically, the first years of school mark their first experience with reading, for the mainstream pattern of the bedtime story has not been a part of their nightly routine. Yet, even without extensive experience in reading and story shaping, when the Year Two children were asked to playwright a script for the adults in Theatre Cap-a-Pie to perform, they immediately jumped on board. Their action was appropriate, for they were asked to help write a pirate play.

From a theatrical point of view, the children, their teachers, and the actors worked to create ensemble—the spirit of an acting troupe or company—to develop a sense of mutual responsibility for every aspect of their play. From a literary point of view, the children’s 18 voices combined with those of the adults to script the play, and their process had strong links to Mikhail Bakhtin’s description of polyphonic creation. Still, there were tensions in the process. On the one hand, the adults in the study sought the “surprise” that Bakhtin was so fond of—they listened to the children’s voices and incorporated their words into the play, responding openly to the children as both characters and as actors. On the other hand, there was distance from Bakhtin’s notion of “unfinalizability,” for there were still overarching deadlines to be met, characters to be developed, settings to be staged, and plots to be resolved. Thus, the openness and surprise of polyphony batters up against the very real constraints of putting on a play, and this contrast will be seen throughout the presentation. In essence, the tug of children’s voices combined with the pull of adults putting on a performance highlight the very real transformation of children’s lives as they not only learned about the theatre, but learned to see themselves as playwrights. By thinking in common, both children and adults became the creative mass behind the single voice of their script.

Keywords: Literacy, Drama, Language
Stream: Arts Education
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr. Shelby Wolf

Professor, University of Colorado at Boulder, Creative Partnerships of the Arts Council of England

Shelby Wolf is professor of education and an award-winning teacher and educational scholar at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research centers on children’s language and learning through engagement in literature and collaborative as well as creative modes of expression—discussion, writing, the visual arts, and drama. Her most recent book, Interpreting Literature with Children (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004), portrays her close work with teachers as co-researchers in the study of children’s literary learning. She has worked within numerous school-change programs to validate the perspectives of teachers who undertake enquiry into how learning works in their classrooms. She is a senior author of Houghton Mifflin English, a textbook series devoted to helping children improve as writers. With Shirley Brice Heath, she wrote The Braid of Literature: Children’s Worlds of Reading (Harvard University Press, 1992).

Most recently, Dr. Wolf has joined again with Shirley Brice Heath to look closely at how language, attention, inspiration, and collaboration within two schools in England changed through artistic partnership. One set of booklets reports on Visual Learning in the Community School (Creative Partnerships, 2004) while another set concentrates on Dramatic Learning in the Primary School (Creative Partnerships, 2005).

For more information on Dr. Wolf’s teaching, research, and presentations see: http://www.colorado.edu/education/faculty/shelbywolf/.

Ref: A06P0261